The periodic “I decided to break free of my smartphone and it sort of changed my life” articles that pop up are usually pretty shallow, but this one from the New York Times is a refreshing exception.
Catherine encouraged me to set up mental speed bumps so that I would be forced to think for a second before engaging with my phone. I put a rubber band around the device, for example, and changed my lock screen to one that showed three questions to ask myself every time I unlocked my phone: “What for? Why now? What else?”
For the rest of the week, I became acutely aware of the bizarre phone habits I’d developed. I noticed that I reach for my phone every time I brush my teeth or step outside the front door of my apartment building, and that, for some pathological reason, I always check my email during the three-second window between when I insert my credit card into a chip reader at a store and when the card is accepted.
Mostly, I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness. For years, I’ve used my phone every time I’ve had a spare moment in an elevator or a boring meeting. I listen to podcasts and write emails on the subway. I watch YouTube videos while folding laundry. I even use an app to pretend to meditate.
If I was going to repair my brain, I needed to practice doing nothing. So during my morning walk to the office, I looked up at the buildings around me, spotting architectural details I’d never noticed before. On the subway, I kept my phone in my pocket and people-watched — noticing the nattily dressed man in the yellow hat, the teens eating hot Takis and laughing, the kid with Velcro shoes. When a friend ran late for our lunch, I sat still and stared out the window instead of checking Twitter.
It’s an unnerving sensation, being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019.
One of my observations about how the world is fundamentally different now than it was when I become aware of it (the 1970s) is that things are designed now to prevent us from being alone with our thoughts. Stop at the gas station and as you pump, you’re bombarded with audio ads or a video screen on the pump commanding your attention. Go to a grocery store and instead of bland muzak you hear advertisements from the store. Entire terminals at airports has been redesigned with iPads everywhere to make sure no one ever has to sit quietly and think. I think (without any particular proof) that this has a corrosive effect on our ability to think.
I am a lot like this writer before he started paying attention; when nothing is happening, out comes the phone. It’s worth making that a more conscious choice.